Yesterday the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held that the state of Arizona was wrong to ban the "Choose Life" specialty license plate, citing free speech. Arizona "clearly denied the application based on the nature of the message," wrote Judge Richard Tallman in the 3-0 ruling. You won't get an argument from me on that one, Your Honor. But what makes you think that's the point?
Perhaps some of you readers don't know anything about this ruckus. You might live in some lovely civilized place -- say, California, where both I and the 9th Circuit live -- in which case you've probably never seen one of these plates. Permit me to enlighten you. They're yellow. They have a cute child's drawing of a boy and a girl on them. And they say "Choose Life" in a child's scrawl. Then there are your license plate numbers. As if the state endorses all of this.
These plates are ubiquitous in states like Florida, which approved them all the way back in 2000. Their owners pay a $22 annual fee that goes to support organizations that encourage girls with unwanted pregnancies to give up their babies for adoption. If an organization even mentions the word "abortion," it's disqualified from receiving any proceeds from the plate. In case you were wondering, there's no "Choose Choice" license plate on the list of Florida's offerings.
We have specialty plates here in California. I own one myself. It says, "Yosemite National Park," and my annual fee goes to the Yosemite Foundation. I had other options, too. Real controversial stuff. There's Lake Tahoe Conservancy. Also, California Coastal Commission (aka Save the Whales). And Firefighters. And the Child Health and Safety Fund, which goes toward child injury prevention. In other words, every California specialty plate offers a message you can be sure that California, as a state, sanctions on some level. You can tell by its offerings that California wants to preserve the health of its whales, its lakes, its mountains, its firefighters, and its kids. What California doesn't do is provide a state-sponsored platform for a moral argument.
When Arizona rejected the Choose Life group's application, it said the state was concerned that people would come to the conclusion that Arizona had endorsed the plate's anti-abortion message. And since the plate is a means to funnel funds to a special-interest group, Arizona can hardly be blamed for wanting to avoid the appearance it had chosen sides in such a divisive debate.
So I hardly think the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court is focusing on the key issue when it used free speech to overturn a lower court's decision to allow Arizona to regulate the messages that appear on its license plates. Now what? Arizona can't ban a group that wants a license plate that says "Preserve Traditional Marriage"? That message qualifies as free speech too, though I doubt that when that message is embossed onto Arizona plates you'll also find its counterpoint: "Marriage is For Everyone." If this is where the courts are going, I am more than pleased to lose my ability to own a license plate that supports Yosemite. I'll write the damn check myself. I have a suggestion for Choose Life -- which, by the way, is a 42-state organization that is pursuing law suits across the nation. Choose this: Bumper stickers.